How does a small Central American country emerge in the forefront of a global push to avert climate disaster? It does so, with leaders who put their principles where their power is, as became clear at an event hosted by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics

Carlos Alvarado Quesada, the former president of Costa Rica, is internationally renowned for his efforts to address climate change in his home country, and he brought his story to Boston College for the Winston Center’s biannual Clough Colloquium.

Carlos Alvarado Quesada

Carlos Alvarado Quesada

“I always pictured myself as someone there to help,” said Alvarado, whose prominence as a seasoned public speaker was on full display as he wove through his experiences as president and his signature initiatives. The event, held October 17th in the Heights Room on a rainy evening, captured the attention of the students and faculty in attendance.

Alvarado’s path toward creating political change began at the age of 34 when President Luis Guillermo Solís, a former professor of Alvarado’s, made him the Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion. At the end of Solís’s four-year term in 2018—Costa Rican presidents cannot serve two consecutive terms—Alvarado found himself and his country at a crossroads. The national debt was soaring, and far-right candidates were gaining popularity. Alvarado feared for the future of his family and his country, and he decided it was up to him to do something about it.

“Power, from my view, only serves a purpose if it's pushed into the service of something, into changing things,” Alvarado said, reflecting on his mindset when deciding to join the presidential race. He won the election with 61 percent of the vote, and by 2019, only his second year in office, he had launched two trailblazing climate change initiatives. These included a plan to  decarbonize Costa Rica’s economy by 2050, the world’s first comprehensive decarbonization plan; and the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which began as a joint commitment with the United Kingdom and France to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030.

Power, from my view, only serves a purpose if it's pushed into the service of something, into changing things
Carlos Alvarado Quesada

“If somebody tells you there's something impossible, take it as a gift,” he told the audience. “Take it as something to fuel your positive visions for change to happen.” Skeptics raised concerns about the scale of Alvarado’s environmental agenda and its impact on the nation’s economy, taking the view that Costa Rica accounted for a miniscule amount of global emissions and was therefore not responsible for taking serious climate action.

Despite the skepticism, Costa Rica led the global charge for sustainability in the following years, with many countries following suit. By 2022, 115 countries joined the High Ambition Coalition, and California, the world’s fourth largest economy, looked to Costa Rica’s decarbonization plan for inspiration.

Carlos Alvarado Quesada and Charles I. Clough ’64 and Gloria L. Clough, MDiv’90, MS’96

Carlos Alvarado Quesada pictured with Charles I. Clough ’64 and Gloria L. Clough, MDiv’90, MS’96

In addition to ushering in a new wave of green policy, Alvarado’s policies also—in his telling—positively impacted Costa Rica’s economy. He explained that new industries cropped up around sustainable energy, creating jobs and new markets in a decarbonized economy. Alvarado also cited a RAND Corporation independent study that estimated the decarbonization plan would yield over $40 billion in net profits. 

Still, Alvarado’s fiscal policies came under fire at home, even as his climate initiatives achieved international recognition. In the early days of his administration, he instituted a tax on the wealthiest 40 percent of the population to mitigate the growing national debt. “Looking back, what we did was avoid a huge crisis,” he says. “But nobody is going to thank you for something that did not happen. So why do it? Because it’s the right thing to do.” 

Alvarado recounted how, on these and other issues, he had to make tough calls and some unpopular decisions because they were ultimately “the right thing to do.” When a student in attendance asked Alvarado how he balanced social and economic responsibilities in the wake of the pandemic, he solemnly reflected that he wished that “nobody had to make those kinds of decisions.” Regardless, when faced with protecting the economy or saving lives, he resolutely chose to minimize the death toll through strict quarantine and isolation policies, as well as a ban on tourism in 2020. 

Volcan Arenal, La Fortuna Costa Rica

Costa Rica's rainforests and beaches have fostered its reputation as a tourist hotspot

With the tourism industry making up a large swath of the national economy, the ban contributed to a wave of unemployment. Many Costa Ricans opposed Alvarado’s policies because of the effects on their day-to-day lives; his policies triggered major protests and his approval ratings plummeted to just 12 percent in 2021

Alvarado finished out his term in 2022 and is currently a senior fellow at the Edward R. Murrow Center for Global Diplomacy as well as a professor of practice at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He remains committed to fighting climate change—in 2023, he joined the board of trustees at Rare, a nonprofit organization that promotes global conservation through changing human behavior. 

Although he stressed the importance of following one’s convictions, Alvarado also made it clear that leaders will often have to shift their thinking and compromise to make change happen. He recalled that he needed to scale back some of his ambitions as he struggled to gain the approval of the legislature in Costa Rica. “The key word is partnership,” he said. “I needed to reach out to others to compromise because I needed [these reforms] to protect the country.”

Elizabeth "Lizzie" McGinn is the content development specialist at the Carroll School of Management.